The beauty and power of nature move me. Most would admit that they are also awed by the majesty of our terrestrial home – the Earth. The visual experience of woods and wilderness, mountains, rivers and seas resonates deep within many of us. After all, as God’s humanity, our bodies were constructed of the “dust of the earth” – its very elements.
The Earth is God’s vast, wild garden. Though fallen, it still holds its fascination over us, as we see His creation declaring His glory. Whether simply hiking a trail in a rural park or ascending a mountain peak, few can resist an emotional response to nature.
When depicted in art, we have a fixed, never-changing representation of this beauty. In art, despite our immediate environment and the reality surrounding us, our minds may refer to distant places, as in a dream. Throughout history, artists have sought to capture the magnificence of God’s fallen garden.
Following the Industrial Revolution in the early 19th century, city dwellers yearned to escape the squalor of cramped city living. Rural living and a return to a more natural environment was being idealized. During this period – known as the Romantic Age of the arts – many artists traveled out to the country in search of inspiration.
At that time, landscape painting achieved recognition as a genre within fine art. Today, John Constable is acclaimed as one of the best Romantic painters – see “The Hay Wain” above. In his work, fields, fens, and woodlands are dotted by ponds, streams, and rivers. Cottages, mills, grand homes and cathedrals appear in rustic settings, and his human figures are usually small and positioned almost insignificantly on the canvas.
Another great landscape painter of the period was JMW Turner. Living in London, Turner didn’t have to go far to paint his violent, turbulent seascapes and landscapes filled with highly imaginative daylight. Along with Constable, these two Englishmen had an enormous impact on 19th-century painting in the Western world. They inspired the work of painters both in Europe and across the Atlantic in the US.
On the continent, the German painter Caspar David Friedrich left the city of Dresden to depict the German “wald.” His intense seascapes and forest woodland scenes may be best described as mysterious and, at times, harsh. These enigmatic, mystical images often contain a solitary figure or figures seemingly lost in contemplation. His contemporary, the French sculptor David d’Angers, said that Friedrich discovered the “tragedy of landscape,” an observation that may reflect the fallen quality of nature addressed by his work.
Constable’s work in particular provided the model for the Hudson River School of painting in the United States. The Hudson River artists gave us many fine landscapes that capture America’s untamed land, initially painting scenes along the Hudson River Valley.
The acknowledged founder of the Hudson River School, Thomas Cole, emigrated from England in 1818 and is recognized as America’s first great landscape painter. Following Cole’s death in 1848, his friend Asher Durand became the pre-eminent landscape painter in the US. Cole taught and mentored Frederick Church, the leader of the next generation of the Hudson River School. Church also traveled extensively and painted in South and Central America, Europe and the Middle East.
Given our contemporary vantage point in a culture undergoing a tailspin of moral decline, we may be tempted to believe that these Romantic artists were inspired by pagan pantheism – the pantheism that would rapidly dominate Western art soon after the Romantic period. However, the historical reality presents a different narrative: these artists were men of faith.
Constable was a devout conformist Anglican and a close friend to many Anglican churchmen. One modern critic said that “the scene of Constable’s life was bounded by religion, enfolded and enclosed under the benevolent eye of God.”
JMW Turner was highly eccentric and lived an intensely private life. Though he belonged to no church, throughout his life he painted at least a dozen scripture-themed works. His last words were said to be ”the Son is God.”
In his teens, Friedrich was influenced by Ludwig Gotthard Kosegarten, a Lutheran preacher and poet, who emphasized that nature is God’s revelation. In his work on Friedrich, William Vaughn writes that the art of Friedrich speaks of “divine creation, set against the artifice of human civilization.”
The Hudson School’s Cole and Church were believers, acknowledged as “devout Protestants” by contemporaries. Asher Durand wrote, “The true province of Landscape Art is the representation of the work of God in the visible creation.”
Soon, in the 20th century, abstract genres would remove reality and a clear representation of the magnificence of nature. Even when dealing with nature, contemporary art may make use of the elements of His universe – such as color and form – but expresses no true appreciation of the creation. Sadly, much of recent art is hollow and ineffective, and may even be demoted to decorative art.
The Romantic period, I believe, is a high point in the art of Western civilization. It provides a welcome relief from much of the art of today. Praise God for their timeless examples of the splendor of God’s Creation!
Through the near-magical skill of the Romantic painters, we may experience the awesome splendor of the scenes in nature which gave them pause – pause to wonder at our Maker’s infinite majesty.